They played “Conan” with only a few days’ notice; toured with Modest Mouse, My Morning Jacket and Walk the Moon, and hit festivals ranging from Lollapalooza in Chicago to Reading and Leeds in England. Somewhere in there, they also got to legally order their first drinks at a bar.
Talking last month before their first public hometown gig behind their new album, the members of Hippo Campus reminisced about these experiences like state football champs at a 25-year class reunion. Except their big game happened just two years ago, when the buoyant pop/rock quartet got swept up into a flood of hype after issuing their first EP and hitting the road for the first time.
“It was such a wild mix of fun, hard work and pure insanity,” drummer Whistler Allen said as his bandmates settled into the upstairs storage room that doubles as the green room at Icehouse in south Minneapolis.
“By the fifth or sixth time we came home from the road, it was like, ‘Huh? What’s home?’ ” guitarist Nathan Stocker added.
“I was drunk the whole time,” bassist Zach Sutton wisecracked, but then more seriously offered, “Those are the memories I’ll take to the old folks’ home and just giggle.”
They’re still a lot closer to being high school seniors than senior-care residents, but the members of Hippo Campus did grow up in leaps and bounds for their first full-length LP, “Landmark.” Making the album required almost a year of well-deserved downtime, a lot of studio experimentation and a little soul searching, but the quartet challenged themselves on purpose.
Produced by BJ Burton — an ace engineer known for his Low and Bon Iver collaborations — “Landmark” is as ambitious as a precocious sixth-grader, loaded with thickly cushioned ambience, billowy melodies and concisely written songs that required trips to three recording studios to finish.
At the Icehouse show in February, Hippo Campus officially came out the other end of the long tunnel of making the record. The guys, ages 21 to 22, performed the new LP in its entirety to air on 89.3 the Current — yet another daunting task since, as singer Jake Luppen explained, “We basically used the studio as another instrument.”
“There’s quite a difference between playing your songs at 100-some shows and then recording them, versus recording them and then playing them at 100 different shows,” Allen said. “But figuring that out has been a fun challenge.”
While the album’s title is a subtle nod to Landmark Center in downtown St. Paul, where three of the members met as students at the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists, it was intended to be more ambiguous than that.
“We felt like all these places we’d been were directions given to us,” Stocker said, “and what we were doing with the record was setting up another landmark for ourselves, making something we would look back on as an important moment.”
By the time Hippo Campus gets to First Avenue in downtown Minneapolis on Saturday and Sunday for two sold-out concerts, the band members will have at least 20 shows behind “Landmark” under their belts. They went on tour again a few days after the Icehouse gig and made it to the West Coast, where they hit the set of “Conan” for a second time this past Tuesday. They also did a short U.K. jaunt in January.
In a subsequent phone interview from San Francisco last week, Luppen opened up more about the anxiety and personal issues he and his bandmates faced as they pieced together this new record. “We hit a few low points,” he conceded.
Hippo Campus’ prior two six-song EPs earned the band a good indie record deal with New York label Grand Jury, decent radio play and all the aforementioned road work — but also an inordinate number of comparisons to East Coast preppie rockers Vampire Weekend, plus a whole lot of references to their youth.
As they played around with new sounds and tried to raise their songwriting level under Burton’s tutelage, “It wasn’t quite coming together the way we wanted it to, and we didn’t really know why,” the singer said.
“Basically, we wanted to make a record that was bigger than any one of us, so we had to learn to set aside egos and not let personal feelings be hurt if a certain part didn’t work or something had to be changed. And some of these songs changed a lot over time.”
The band members enjoyed some bonding experiences in that time that kept them on track, though, including a writing retreat to Tulum, Mexico, an 11-day recording session at the renowned Sonic Ranch Studio near El Paso, Texas, and a camping trip last summer in northern Minnesota that came about halfway through the recording process.
On the latter trip, Luppen said, they candidly discussed, “Why are we doing this?”
“We learned a lot about each other, and I think we really became a stronger band because of it,” he summarized.
While they personally and musically matured, Luppen and Stocker — who share the bulk of the lyric writing duties — stuck with what they know lyrically and didn’t hide their ages.
Many of the songs on “Landmark” hold up a selfie stick to their generation with tongues sticking out, from the shuffling ditty “Way It Goes” to the more jagged, charmingly smarmy “Western Kids.” In the latter tune, Luppen refers to “zombie kids” staring into their phones. “I just love this, I swear I’ll go viral,” he sings. “From the ’burbs to the streets now it’s a revival/The spirit is found in the idealistically idle.”
Luppen emphasized that these songs aren’t full of disdain: “We’re finding humor in ourselves and the people we know,” he said.
“We’re criticizing ourselves and saying we’re no better, the way we worship clothing and check our Twitter every day. It’s important to be able to laugh at yourself, realize how ridiculous social media is, how ridiculous a lot of the things we think are important really are.”
Less laughably, the album’s highly charged, lushly orchestrated centerpiece “Boyish” addresses the widespread divorce they saw growing up in the Twin Cities suburbs, including Woodbury. Lyrics include, “All I ever heard is it wasn’t my fault/But what good is the truth if you don’t understand?” Three of Hippo Campus’ four members come from split homes.
Divorce “is another thing we dealt with in adolescence that shaped us, but we’re moving on from,” Stocker said. Another landmark, in other words.
In the phone call from the road, Luppen was happy to discuss another milestone the band members crossed with this record: They hired their first tour bus to take them around the country, trading in the passenger van of their prior long hauls.
“We actually get some sleep now and have more time to go out and see all the towns we play in,” he enthused. “I think that’s going to make this a lot more doable and fun.”
He quickly added, “Not that we haven’t had a lot of fun already.”
When: 7 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
Where: First Avenue, Mpls.
Tickets: Sold out.